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Impearls: George Orwell on another War

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Earthdate 2004-07-12

George Orwell on another War

Writer George Orwell wrote this poem in a letter to the Tribune during the war in response to popular pacifist attitudes in Britain in the midst of the Second World War: 1

O poet strutting from the sandbagged portal
Of that small world where barkers ply their art,
And each new “school” believes itself immortal,
Just like the horse that draws the knacker's cart:
O captain of a clique of self-advancers,
Trained in the tactics of the pamphleteer,
Where slogans serve for thoughts and sneers for answers —
You've chosen well your moment to appear
And hold your nose amid a world of horror
Like Dr Bowdler walking through Gomorrah.

In the Left Book Club days you wisely lay low,
But when “Stop Hitler!” lost its old attraction
You bounded forward in a Woolworth's halo
To cash in on anti-war reaction;
You waited till the Nazis ceased from frightening,
Then, picking a safe audience, shouted “Shame!”
Like a Prometheus you defied the lightning,
But didn't have the nerve to sign your name.
You're a true poet, but as saint and martyr
You're a mere fraud, like the Atlantic Charter.

Your hands are clean, and so were Pontius Pilate's,
But as for “bloody heads,” that's just a metaphor;
The bloody heads are on Pacific islets
Or Russian steppes or Libyan sands — it's better for
The health to be a C.O. than a fighter,
To chalk a pavement doesn't need much guts,
It pays to stay at home and be a writer
While other talents wilt in Nissen huts;
“We live like lions” — yes, just like a lion,
Pensioned on scraps in a safe cage of iron.

For while you write the warships ring you round
And flights of bombers drown the nightingales,
And every bomb that drops is worth a pound
To you or someone like you, for your sales
Are swollen with those of rivals dead or silent,
Whether in Tunis or the B.B.C.,
And in the drowsy freedom of this island
You're free to shout that England isn't free;
They even chuck you cash, as bears get buns,
For crying “Peace!” behind a screen of guns.

In 'seventeen to snub the nosing bitch
Who slipped you a white feather needed cheek,
But now, when every writer finds his niche
Within some mutual-admiration clique,
Who cares what epithets by Blimps are hurled?
Who'd give a damn if handed a white feather?
Each little mob of pansies is a world,
Cosy and warm in any kind of weather;
In such a world it's easy to “object,”
Since that's what both your friends and foes expect.

At times it's almost a more dangerous deed
Not to object; I know, for I've been bitten.
I wrote in nineteen-forty that at need
I'd fight to keep the Nazis out of Britain;
And Christ! How shocked the pinks were! Two years later
I hadn't lived it down; one had the effrontery
To write three pages calling me a “traitor,”
So black a crime it is to love one's country.
Yet where's the pink that would have thought it odd of me
To write a shelf of books in praise of sodomy?

Your game is easy, and its rules are plain:
Pretend the war began in 'thirty-nine,
Don't mention China, Ethiopia, Spain,
Don't mention Poles except to say they're swine;
Cry havoc when we bomb a German city,
When Czechs get killed don't worry in the least,
Give India a perfunctory squirt of pity
But don't inquire what happens further East;
Don't mention Jews — in short, pretend the war is
Simply a racket “got up” by the tories.

Throw in a word of “anti-Fascist” patter
From time to time, by way of reinsurance.
And then go on to prove it makes no matter
If Blimps or Nazis hold the world in durance;
And that we others who “support” the war
Are either crooks or sadists or flag-wavers
In love with drums and bugles, but still more
Concerned with cadging Brendan Bracken's favours;
Or fools who think that bombs bring back the dead.
A thing not even Harris ever said.

If you'd your way we'd leave the Russians to it
And sell our steel to Hitler as before;
Meanwhile you save your soul, and while you do it,
Take out a long-term mortgage on the war.
For after war there comes an ebb of passion,
The dead are sniggered at — and there you'll shine,
You'll be the very bull's-eye of the fashion,
You almost might get back to 'thirty-nine,
Back to the dear old game of scratch-my-neighbour
In sleek reviews financed by coolie labour.

But you don't hoot at Stalin — that's “not done” —
Only at Churchill; I've no wish to praise him,
I'd gladly shoot him when the war is won,
Or now, if there was someone to replace him.
But unlike some, I'll pay him what I owe him;
There was a time when empires crashed like houses,
And many a pink who'd titter at your poem
Was glad enough to cling to Churchill's trousers.
Christ! How they huddled up to one another
Like day-old chicks about their foster-mother!

I'm not a fan for “fighting on the beaches,”
And still less for the “breezy uplands” stuff,
I seldom listen-in to Churchill's speeches,
But I'd far sooner hear that kind of guff
Than your remark, a year or so ago,
That if the Nazis came you'd knuckle under
And peaceably “accept the status quo.”
Maybe you would! But I've a right to wonder
Which will sound better in the days to come,
“Blood, toil and sweat” or “Kiss the Nazi's bum.”

But your chief target is the radio hack,
The hire pep-talker — he's a safe objective,
Since he's unpopular and can't hit back.
It doesn't need the eye of a detective
To look down Portland Place and spot the whores,
But there are men (I grant, not the most heeded)
With twice your gifts and courage three times yours
Who do that dirty work because it's needed;
Not blindly, but for reasons they can balance,
They wear their seats out and lay waste their talents.

All propaganda's lying, yours or mine;
It's lying even when its facts are true;
That goes for Goebbels or the “party line,”
Or for the Primrose League or P.PU.
But there are truths that smaller lies can serve,
And dirtier lies that scruples can gild over;
To waste your brains on war may need more nerve
Than to dodge facts and live in mental clover;
It's mean enough when other men are dying.
But when you lie, it's much to know you're lying.

That's thirteen stanzas, and perhaps you're puzzled
To know why I've attacked you — well, here's why:
Because your enemies all are dead or muzzled.
You've never picked on one who might reply.
You've hogged the limelight and you've aired your virtue,
While chucking sops to every dangerous faction,
The Left will cheer you and the Right won't hurt you;
What did you risk? Not even a libel action.
If you would show what saintly stuff you're made of,
Why not attack the cliques you are afraid of?

Denounce Joe Stalin, jeer at the Red Army,
Insult the Pope — you'll get some come-back there;
It's honourable, even if it's barmy,
To stamp on corns all round and never care.
But for the half-way saint and cautious hero,
Whose head's unbloody even if unbowed,
My admiration's somewhere near to zero;
So my last words would be: Come off that cloud,
Unship those wings that hardly dared to flitter,
And spout your halo for a pint of bitter.
 
 

Reference

1 George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair), “As One Non-Combatant to Another (A Letter to ‘Obadiah Hornbooke’),” Tribune, 1943-06-18.



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